Returning ICWA fellow James Courtright takes issue with the term “farmer-herder-conflict,” widely used by news media, governments and Western NGOs to describe the provenance of violence in West Africa.

James spent a highly illuminating two years deep in the field across the region studying challenges faced by Fulani societies—the world’s largest pastoralist group—including climate change, discriminatory governments and increasing jihadist activity, and what it reveals about the roots of conflict and other major developments in the region’s countries.

He finds the farmer-herder dichotomy reductive and misleading. “Farmer and herder are not mutually exclusive categories,” he said, reporting about his fellowship in Washington, DC on May 17. “While people often say ‘herder’ as a code word for Fulani, they are not the only herders in West Africa. And there are actually far more Fulani farmers than herders.”

Grouping people into factions makes it appear they’re coordinating their actions, he added, framing that affects proposed solutions. He suggests looking to longstanding local, traditional arrangements for ideas instead of imposing measures from outside.

Following his talk, James joined a panel discussion with former fellow and leading regional analyst (and James’s partner) Hannah Rae Armstrong (Sahel, 2012-2014) and the World Bank’s Abdoul Salam Bello, a Fulani himself, moderated by ICWA trustee Catherine Rielly.

Hannah raised the importance of studying Fulani border communities at a time when military and security resources are being moved to the region. “Militarized approaches to countering terrorism often lead to outbreaks or escalations of conflict,” she said.

Bello emphasized the need for local leadership in preventing conflict. “The state must be able to ensure proper governance of the land and natural resources, but also of the populations’ access and social contracts,” he said. Observers should also refrain from portraying the Fulani as disenfranchised, he added.

After finishing his fellowship in December, James has begun work with the Dutch think-tank Clingendael, part of a team researching jihadist insurgent infiltration in northern Ghana. He’s also working on a project funded by the British High Commission in Accra, researching the contributions of livestock markets to local economies in northern Ghana, and the role of marginalized Fulani in Ghanaian society. And he plans some long-form writing based on his reporting during his ICWA travels.

Read James’s dispatches here.

ICWAns (left to right) Hannah Rae Armstrong with baby Homer, James Courtright, Susan Brind Morrow (trustee, former fellow), Catherine Rielly (trustee), Joe Battat (trustee, former fellow), Joel Millman (former fellow), Paul Rahe (trustee, former fellow), Bacete Bwogo (trustee, former fellow), Elizabeth Feifer, Joseph Bradley (trustee), Gregory Feifer, Operations Director Bruce Teeter


James Courtright spent two years studying challenges faced by Fulani societies across West Africa—the largest pastoralist community in the world—including climate change, discriminatory governments, increasing jihadist activity and evolving dynamics within Fulani societies. James grew up between East Africa and the United States. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Denison University and a master’s from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He’s served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal, written for NPR, The Christian Science Monitor and Roads & Kingdoms, and worked with Gambian civil society alongside the country’s truth commission.


Abdoul Salam Bello is executive director of the Africa Group II at the World Bank Group Board of Directors and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. An expert in economic development, multilateral trade cooperation and diplomacy, he was previously senior project officer at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), leading a land restoration program in the Sahel. His books include Les Etats-Unis et l’Afrique, de l’esclavage à Obama and La régionalisation en Afrique: Essai sur un processus d’intégration et de développement. 


Hannah Rae Armstrong is a writer and adviser on peace and security in the Sahel, Maghreb and Western Sahara. A former ICWA fellow (Sahel, 2012-2014), she was a senior consulting analyst for the International Crisis Group and a Fulbright fellow in Morocco. She has written for The International New York TimesThe New Republic, and Financial Times.



Catherine Rielly is an ICWA trustee and executive director of Rubia, an NGO that promotes women’s economic empowerment, education and health in Mali, Afghanistan and Palestine. A political economist, she has taught policy analysis, refugee and gender issues, and international community economic development at the graduate level; advised the governments of Mali, Zambia, and the US; and done comparative research on policy in over twenty countries.